Americans have always thought big. But they've seldom thought bigger than 100 years ago, when the Lincoln Highway was envisioned as the nation's first coast-to-coast auto route.
In 1912, travel by car was an adventure at best, impossible at worst. Most of the nation's 2.5 million miles of road were just dirt — dusty and bumpy in dry weather, an impassable swamp when it rained. Only 190,476 miles had “improved” surfaces such as gravel, stone, brick or oiled earth.
“Worse yet, the roads didn't really lead anywhere,” writes Lincoln Highway historian James Lin. They were mostly local, so travel to distant points generally meant taking a train.
Still, Americans were beginning their long love affair with the car. And that gave Carl Fisher an idea. “The automobile won't get anywhere until it has good roads to run on,” he said.
An entrepreneur whose company made auto headlights, Fisher also was a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He envisioned a 3,389-mile road from New York to San Francisco, passing through 13 states. He called it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway and figured the gravelled road would cost about $10 million.
Despite success as a promoter, Fisher couldn't persuade Henry Ford to pitch in to help fund the project. (Ford figured that the public would never pay for good roads if private industry did it instead.) But other auto industry executives did play major roles, including the presidents of Goodyear and the Packard Motor Car Co.
The highway was formally dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913, named as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln.
It took years to complete, but the success of the transcontinental highway helped to spark a transportation revolution and brought economic growth to towns and businesses along its route. “By the mid-1920s, the nation was crisscrossed by a network of approximately 250 named trails,” says a Federal Highway Administration history, including the Dixie Highway, Jefferson Highway and Old Spanish Trail.
One goal of the project, the FHA history says, quoting Fisher, was to “stimulate as nothing else could the building of enduring highways everywhere that will not only be a credit to the American people but that will also mean much to American agriculture and American commerce.”
The Lincoln Highway, sometimes called “The Main Street Across America,” also helped lay the groundwork for today's Interstate system. The 1956 interstate highway legislation was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as a young officer in an Army convoy traveled the Lincoln Highway in 1919. Interstate 80 today parallels the old road across much of the country.
Named highways eventually were given numbers — the Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30 in Nebraska — and memories of the old roads began to fade.
Since 1992, a reactivated Lincoln Highway Association has worked to preserve the road. This summer, the group is marking the centennial. Vintage vehicles are traveling from both coasts, following the original route, and are scheduled to meet in Kearney for a national Lincoln Highway celebration beginning June 30.
It's a fitting location, since the state is in the center of the original route, which passed through 47 Nebraska communities.
A century later, the Lincoln Highway remains a symbol of the enterprising nature of Americans who think big.